LEITCHFIELD, Ky. – The group gathered around the town square, waiting for the arrival of what has become a new American boogeyman: antifa.
Michael Johnson and others were certain that school buses full of radical left-wing extremists from big cities were coming to Leitchfield, Kentucky, where about 50 of their neighbors had gathered on the courthouse lawn to chant, “Black lives matter!” and wave signs in solidarity with the nation's surging protest movement.
The June 10 protest ended peacefully with no sign of any antifascist activists in the town of less than 7,000 people, but Johnson and his son sat awake outside their house all night, armed with a shotgun, just in case the antifa rumors he saw circulating online were true.
“There’s no reason not to believe it after you watch TV, what’s going on,” said Johnson, 53.
It's a scene that has unfolded in many other cities and small towns this year, the product of fear and conflict stoked by bogus posts on social media, right-wing news outlets and even some of the nation's most powerful leaders.
President Donald Trump has said the federal government would designate antifa as a "terrorist organization" and has blamed it for violence at protests against racial injustice and police brutality. Attorney General William Barr has claimed groups using “antifa-like tactics” fueled violent clashes in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.
However, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a congressional panel last Thursday that antifa is more of an ideology or a movement than an organization. While the FBI has had domestic terrorism investigations of “violent anarchist extremists, any number of whom self identify with the antifa movement," Wray noted that extremists driven by white supremacist or anti-government ideologies have been responsible for most deadly attacks in the U.S. over the past few years.
A man suspected of fatally shooting a Trump supporter after a pro-Trump caravan in Portland, Oregon, last month had described himself in a social media post as “100% ANTIFA." Federal agents later shot and killed the suspect, Michael Forest Reinoehl, in Washington state.
But federal arrest records of more than 300 people at protests across the country include very few obvious mentions of the word antifa. They could be hard to identify, however, because there is no domestic terrorism statute under which to charge protesters involved in violence or vandalism.
Louisville, Kentucky-based attorney David Mour has represented many protesters involved in demonstrations over the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was shot by Louisville police officers when they barged into her house in the middle of the night to serve a search warrant. Protesters have occupied a square in downtown Louisville for more than three months. All along, Mour has dealt with wild rumors that antifa is somehow involved.
“It’s constant. These people are just trying to generate fear and frenzy. They’re trying to blame all this stuff on antifa, and I’m like, ‘Who exactly is antifa? Where are they? Who are you talking about?’ It’s insane,” he said.
Rutgers University historian Mark Bray, author of the book “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” said there are well organized, tightly knit antifa groups that have operated for years.
“But that’s different from saying that the politics of antifa is just one single, monolithic organization, which is obviously false,” said Bray, whose book traces the history and evolution of the movement.
Many Americans had never heard of antifa before Trump’s election and the violent clashes between far-right extremists and counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Bray said Trump’s campaign and presidency stimulated far-right organizing and the antifascist response to it. He believes Trump and his allies are demonizing antifa for political gain.
“The portrayal they present serves their purposes of using it as a boogeyman to rally support and to kind of redirect attention away from the legitimate grievances behind the Black Lives Matter protests,” he said.
Adam Klein, an associate professor of communication studies at Pace University, analyzed social media posts by far-right extremists and antifascist activists leading up to the Charlottesville rally three years ago. He found antifascists have a “pretty loose” communication network.
“You don’t get the sense online that there is an organization as much as there are some prominent (social media) accounts associated with antifa,” he said.
Lindsay Ayling, a 32-year-old doctoral student at the University of North Carolina's flagship Chapel Hill campus, is a fixture at counterprotests against neo-Confederates and other far-right group members. They often call her “antifa,” a label she accepts “in the sense that I oppose fascism and I am willing to go and confront fascists on the streets."
“The thing that's so dangerous about labeling anyone who is antifascist as a terrorist is that it's criminalizing thought," she said. "Not just thought, but it's criminalizing active resistance to fascism."
Ayling said the first person to call her an antifa leader was a Florida man, Daniel McMahon, who dubbed himself “the Antifa hunter" online. McMahon was sentenced to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty in April to using social media to threaten a Black activist to deter the man from running for office in Charlottesville.
Far-right extremists aren't the only ones who use the term against her, Ayling said. Last week, she posted a video of herself asking Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson why he and his deputies were “breaking the law” by not wearing masks at the scene of a protest in North Carolina.
“Ma'am, why are you breaking the law? We know you're with antifa,” the sheriff responded.
Rumors of antifa invading Leitchfield, Kentucky, started on Facebook and quickly spread through the community. Stephanie Ann Fulkerson, who had organized the demonstration, was stunned. She usually keeps to herself but felt strongly enough about the Black Lives Matter movement that she decided to plan something in the small town in Grayson County about 70 miles south of Louisville.
“This is the first time I’ve really spoke up for anything. I’m a stay-at-home mom that’s very anti-social. That’s the crazy part of all this,” she said.
As the protest got underway, residents lined up in front of businesses to guard against vandalism, some of them on motorcycles. A handful heckled the protesters. At one point, one of them stormed across the street toward the demonstration, but law enforcement restrained him.
The buses didn’t show, but that didn’t mean everyone accepted it was just a baseless rumor. Johnson said he heard that 15 antifa members in a Winnebago were stopped in town by local residents and law enforcement and complied with a command to go home.
Grayson County Sheriff Norman Chaffins said that didn’t happen.
“That’s a rumor," the sheriff said. “People are pretty detailed when they make up stories.”
Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland. Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker contributed to this story.